The beloved apostle can scarcely touch upon the mention of sacred love, but he must enlarge upon the enforcement of it, as here he does by divers arguments and incentives thereto; as,
I. That it is a mark of our evangelical justification, of our transition into a state of life: We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren, 1 John 3:14. We are by nature children of wrath and heirs of death. By the gospel (the gospel-covenant or promise) our state towards another world is altered and changed. We pass from death to life, from the guilt of death to the right of life; and this transition is made upon our believing in the Lord Jesus: He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life, and he that believeth not hath the wrath of God abiding on him, John 3:36. Now this happy change of state we may come to be assured of: We know that we have passed from death to life; we may know it by the evidences of our faith in Christ, of which this love to our brethren is one, which leads us to characterize this love that is such a mark of our justified state. It is not a zeal for a party in the common religion, or an affection for, or an affectation of, those who are of the same denomination and subordinate sentiments with ourselves. But this love,
1. Supposes a general love to mankind: the law of Christian love, in the Christian community, is founded on the catholic law, in the society of mankind, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Mankind are to be loved principally on these two accounts:—(1.) As the excellent work of God, made by him, and made in wonderful resemblance of him. The reason that God assigns for the certain punishment of a murderer is a reason against our hatred of any of the brethren of mankind, and consequently a reason for our love to them: for in the image of God made he man, Gen. 9:6. (2.) As being, in some measure, beloved in Christ. The whole race of mankind—the gens humana, should be considered as being, in distinction from fallen angels, a redeemed nation; as having a divine Redeemer designed, prepared, and given for them. So God loved the world, even this world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life, John 3:16. A world so beloved of God should accordingly be loved by us. And this love will exert itself in earnest desires, and prayers, and attempts, for the conversion and salvation of the yet uncalled blinded world. My heart’s desire and prayer for Israel are that they may be saved. And then this love will include all due love to enemies themselves.
2. It includes a peculiar love to the Christian society, to the catholic church, and that for the sake of her head, as being his body, as being redeemed, justified, and sanctified in and by him; and this love particularly acts and operates towards those of the catholic church that we have opportunity of being personally acquainted with or credibly informed of. They are not so much loved for their own sakes as for the sake of God and Christ, who have loved them. And it is God and Christ, or, if you will, the love of God and grace of Christ, that are beloved and valued in them and towards them. And so this is the issue of faith in Christ, and is thereupon a note of our passage from death to life.
II. The hatred of our brethren is, on the contrary, a sign of our deadly state, of our continuance under the legal sentence of death: He that loveth not his brother (his brother in Christ) abideth in death, 1 John 3:14. He yet stands under the curse and condemnation of the law. This the apostle argues by a clear syllogism: “You know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him; but he who hates his brother is a murderer; and therefore you cannot but know that he who hates his brother hath not eternal life abiding in him,” 1 John 3:15. Or, he abideth in death, as it is expressed, 1 John 3:14; Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer; for hatred of the person is, so far as it prevails, a hatred of life and welfare, and naturally tends to desire the extinction of it. Cain hated, and then slew, his brother. Hatred will shut up the bowels of compassion from the poor brethren, and will thereby expose them to the sorrows of death. And it has appeared that hatred of the brethren has in all ages dressed them up in ill names, odious characters, and calumnies, and exposed them to persecution and the sword. No wonder, then, that he who has a considerable acquaintance with the heart of man, or is taught by him who fully knows it, who knows the natural tendency and issue of vile and violent passions, and knows withal the fulness of the divine law, declares him who hates his brother to be a murderer. Now he who by the frame and disposition of his heart is a murderer cannot have eternal life abiding in him; for he who is such must needs be carnally-minded, and to be carnally-minded is death, Rom. 8:6. The apostle, by the expression of having eternal life abiding in us, may seem to mean the possession of an internal principle of endless life, according to that of the Saviour, Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst, shall never be totally destitute thereof; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life, John 4:14. And thereupon some may be apt to surmise that the passing from death to life (1 John 3:14) does not signify the relative change made in our justification of life, but the real change made in the regeneration to life; and accordingly that the abiding in death mentioned 1 John 3:14 is continuance in spiritual death, as it is usually called, or abiding in the corrupt deadly temper of nature. But as these passages more naturally denote the state of the person, whether adjudged to life or death, so the relative transition from death to life may well be proved or disproved by the possession or non-possession of the inward principle of eternal life, since washing from the guilt of sin is inseparably united with washing from the filth and power of sin. But you are washed, but you are sanctified, but you are justified, in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God, 1 Cor. 6:11.
III. The example of God and Christ should inflame our hearts with this holy love: Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren, 1 John 3:16. The great God has given his Son to the death for us. But since this apostle has declared that the Word was God, and that he became flesh for us, I see not why we may not interpret this of God the Word. Here is the love of God himself, of him who in his own person is God, though not the Father, that he assumed a life, that he might lay it down for us! Here is the condescension, the miracle, the mystery of divine love, that God would redeem the church with his own blood! Surely we should love those whom God hath loved, and so loved; and we shall certainly do so if we have any love for God.
IV. The apostle, having proposed this flaming constraining example of love, and motive to it, proceeds to show us what should be the temper and effect of this our Christian love. And, 1. It must be, in the highest degree, so fervent as to make us willing to suffer even to death for the good of the church, for the safety and salvation of the dear brethren: And we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren (1 John 3:16), either in our ministrations and services to them (yea, and if I be offered upon the service and sacrifice of your faith, I joy and rejoice with you all—I shall congratulate your felicity, Phil. 2:17), or in exposing ourselves to hazards, when called thereto, for the safety and preservation of those that are more serviceable to the glory of God and the edification of the church than we can be. Who have for my life laid down their own necks; unto whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles, Rom. 16:4. How mortified should the Christian be to this life! How prepared to part with it! And how well assured of a better! 2. It must be, in the next degree, compassionate, liberal, and communicative to the necessities of the brethren: For whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? 1 John 3:17. It pleases God that some of the Christian brethren should be poor, for the exercise of the charity and love of those that are rich. And it pleases the same God to give to some of the Christian brethren this world’s good, that they may exercise their grace in communicating to the poor saints. And those who have this world’s good must love a good God more, and their good brethren more, and be ready to distribute it for their sakes. It appears here that this love to the brethren is founded upon love to God, in that it is here called so by the apostle: How dwelleth the love of God in him? This love to the brethren is love to God in them; and where there is none of this love to them there is no true love to God at all. 3. I was going to intimate the third and lowest degree in the 1 John 3:18; but the apostle has prevented me, by intimating that this last charitable communicative love, in persons of ability, is the lowest that can consist with the love of God. But there may be other fruits of this love; and therefore the apostle desires that in all it should be unfeigned and operative, as circumstances will allow: My little children (my dear children in Christ), let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth, 1 John 3:18. Compliments and flatteries become not Christians; but the sincere expressions of sacred affection, and the services or labours of love, do. Then,
V. This love will evince our sincerity in religion, and give us hope towards God: And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him, 1 John 3:19. It is a great happiness to be assured of our integrity in religion. Those that are so assured may have holy boldness or confidence towards God; they may appeal to him from the censures and condemnation of the world. The way to arrive at the knowledge of our own truth and uprightness in Christianity, and to secure our inward peace, is to abound in love and in the works of love towards the Christian brethren.